Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quality Decline Records

I’ve been thinking about the recently departed R.E.M. lately, and listening to New Adventures In Hi-Fi in particular. It’s not their best work, and my younger self didn’t even have time for “E-Bow The Letter.” For me, it bore the mark of following Monster, a record I once despised. But I like New Adventures, quite a bit actually.

It’s not a record that’s played a part in the R.E.M. obits. It was well-received at the time, though not the commercial success the past three albums had been (all quadruple platinum). It’s been overshadowed because it’s the best album of R.E.M.’s protracted decline—a good album, but certainly a slip in quality from the amazing 1982-1992 period.

In puzzling over New Adventures, I think I’ve identified a new species of album: the Quality Decline Record. I offer this concept to the world of rock writing, to join the taxonomy of Difficult Second Albums, Stripped Down/Back To Basics Records, Sophomore Slumps and so on. What defines a Quality Decline Record?
  • Obviously, the QDR comes amid a decline in an artists' output. It's better than what follows, but it's not what the group's reputation is staked on.
    • In other words, the album is less critically respected than a group's earlier work, or has been reappraised to this status. It might be fingered out--unfairly--but it's not as cred-sapping as other decline-era works.
  • The decline must be protracted. Albums like Speakerboxx/The Love Below or Brighten The Corners aren't followed by long enough declines.
  • The QDR is overshadowed by earlier, more respected albums, and by more commercially successful ones. It's probably not well known to non-fans.
  • It stands out from other, worse decline-period albums.
  • The QDR doesn't spark a rally, or second golden era.
  • A QDR gains extra points for manifesting the qualities that become the band's downfall.
These are general principles, many QDRs may deviate.

For example, I'd peg The Rolling Stones' Black And Blue as a QDR. It follows the 68-72 classic period, is the third consecutive record to fall below that standard, and sees the Stones lazily remaining in their comfort zone (except to chase a trend on the lead single). Yet it's complicated by 1978's Some Girls, a better record, on which the band's reputation is partly staked. Still, Black And Blue isn't critically beloved, is unknown to non-fans, is worse than the groups best, and manifests the qualities that would be the Stones' downfall (allow me to throw Ron Wood into the mix here). It's an overlooked, pretty awesome record. A Quality Decline Record has to be quality, after all.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a classic QDR. So are Sly and the Family Stone's Fresh and Michael Jackson's Bad, which in those cases inaugurates each artists' decline. Other QDRs might be more contentious. Does Public Enemy have a QDR? Does Jay-Z? What about Springsteen, New Order or Black Sabbath? I would personally point to Physical Grafitti as a Quality Decline Record, but I think I'm in the minority there. Any number of late eighties and early nineties Prince albums might be considered QDRs.

Artists who had short careers aren't really eligible for this honor. And artists who have had intermittent or near-constant successes frustrate this concept--Neil Young or PJ Harvey, say. Still, I think it's a mildly helpful way of considering certain albums and bodies of work. The albums themselves are also good listens--quality records, without the baggage of classic status. They often feel like discoveries. Favorite QDRs?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Taking Souvenirs: R.E.M.'s 10 Best Albums

R.E.M. recently called it quits. I can't think of another band who had a decade as incredible as R.E.M.'s first, save for the Beatles (whose decade was only eight years). R.E.M. are one of my favorites, one of the greats. Listening to these records again has been my way of saying goodbye.

1. Murmur (1983)
Peter Buck’s shiny, ringing Rickenbacker paints in faded yellows, buoyed by the most melodic and modest of rhythm sections. The singer doesn't mumble, just pieces together syllables. Murmur exudes aura, and the band's gift was letting us live in it.

2. Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
A louder, angrier, more engaged and more decipherable band. At least at first—as Pageant unfolds, it wades into sublime waters. Only a handful of records from the 80’s Amerindie scene rival Murmur, but this is one of them.

3. Reckoning (1984)
Murmur's sidelong attack, trained on exuberant and melancholy Americana. A record that traffics in undercurrents--Finster's art captures it well, with titles to match.

4. Chronic Town (1981)
Toss in the Hib-Tone single here. R.E.M. arrived with these urgent, glancingly melodic oddities. They kick off their debut 7” and first EP with their very first pop moves.

5. Out Of Time (1991)
Guitar-pop that doesn’t sound huge, although the band was getting there. R.E.M. went several directions, surveying baroque harmonies, jangle-goof and devastating mandolin.

6. Automatic For The People (1992)
An elegiac procession of tunes, stately even. Stipe commits to each line with fervor, with a range that's surprisingly varied. This is the music you hear when you're lost in thought.

7. Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)
You have to tear off the kudzu to unearth the brilliant songwriting on Fables, but it’s there. Darker and folksier, still a series of bread-crumbs.

8. Green (1988)
An uneasy mix of straight pop and dirgey folk-rock, of which the band were newly fond. No noticeable concessions to the major label—another fun, frightening colleciton.

9. Document (1987)
Featuring the worst production on a classic R.E.M. record, which neuters Bill Berry's drums. Thankfully, the band's sound had never been this strident before, playing with an ancient bite.

10. New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)
Expansive and rarely melodic, these sixty-six minutes of arena alternative sketch a new landscape for the band. R.E.M.’s record for the American West.